The New Museum‘s third triennial, Surround Audience, is not nearly as immersive as its title suggests, and it sabotages many of the most conventional two-dimensional and sculptural works on view. Co-curators Lauren Cornell — the former director of Rhizome — and Ryan Trecartin — the video and performance artist — surely didn’t do this on purpose, but the lion’s share of the exhibition’s paintings, sculptures, and photographs flop. Videos, installations, quasi-archival collections, and performances by Lisa Tan, Donna Kukama, Josh Kline, Geumhyung Jeong, Nadim Abbas, and Eduardo Navarro, among others, are the show’s most memorable, but this tumefied triennial does a disservice to all 51 artists and their more than 150 works by diluting the experiences of its most enveloping pieces and overwhelming the more static ones.
There are plenty of worthwhile works on canvas and paper, like Sascha Braunig‘s wonderfully strange alien portrait paintings and Njideka Akunyili Crosby‘s exquisite mixed media drawings, but this is not their exhibition. Other, less aesthetically appealing works, like Ane Graff‘s marble slab sculptures, Ketuta Alexi-Meskhishvili‘s abstract photographs, and Avery Singer‘s big monochrome paintings, seem to serve no other purpose than to take up space. In a show so full of expansive projects and ambitious installations — and the obligatory Oculus Rift environment, courtesy Daniel Steegmann Mangrané — curatorial gluttony hurts everyone.
Luckily, Cornell and Trecartin succeed in making sufficient space for some of Surround Audience‘s strongest works, which examine the strange, funny, uncanny, and scary effects of digital technologies on our lives. The most memorable may be Josh Kline’s satiric installation “Freedom” (2015), which finds actor Reggie Brown playing President Obama and delivering a utopian speech about prioritizing social justice, equality, and environmentalism on a large video screen, while Teletubby-like figures in SWAT team gear stand guard in the gallery. Each soldier has a video monitor embedded in its abdomen that shows retired police officers, treated with face-substitution software, performing scripts of current events commentary culled from social media. Cell phone relay towers that have sprouted credit cards for leaves loom overhead, while the room’s military-futuristic floor looks something like the armored tank exterior of the the Barclays Center. Other video works, like Lisa Tan’s “Waves” (2014) — a meditation on Virginia Wolfe’s The Waves, classical paintings of the subject, and the disembodied museum-going enabled by the Google Cultural Institute — and Geumhyung Jeong’s comic “Fitness Guide” (2011) — in which the artist performs a series of increasingly sexual exercises with a modified fitness machine — offer divergent and disarming takes on how we have humanized technology, all the while becoming more computer-like in our ways of thinking and being.
2015 Triennial: Surround Audience runs February 25–May 24 at the New Museum (235 Bowery, Lower East Side).
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